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South Side church becomes restaurant

By Johnna A. Pro,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, April 14, 2005

The historic Cleaves Temple on the South Side had been left to deteriorate in recent years, its stained glass windows covered in grime, its majestic columns and dome towers marred by the hands of vandals and Mother Nature.It was little more than a crumbling eyesore on Carson Street between 10th and 11th streets, a fate hardly befitting a building that served as a place of Christian worship for nearly 100 years.

Since January, though, contractors and artisans working for developer and restaurateur Clint Pohl have worked painstakingly to recapture the building’s past while readying it for a future as a restaurant, the Halo Cafe, much to the delight of the city’s historical preservationists.

“It’s going to be fabulous,” said Maria Burgwin of the city’s Historic Preservation office, which approved the renovation plans in the fall. “We hate to see vacant buildings in historic districts.”

The project is the second one undertaken by Pohl, who spearheaded the renovation of the St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in the Strip District, turning it into Sanctuary, a nightclub.

While records about Cleaves Temple are sometimes sketchy, the building was constructed in 1913 by J.O. Keller at the behest of a congregation of Ukrainian Presbyterians formed several years earlier. At the time, the two existing churches that served the large Ukrainian population living on the South Side were Byzantine Catholic churches.

The newly formed congregation found a patron in a wealthy woman named Mrs. William McKelvey of East Liberty Presbyterian Church. She donated the money to construct the church, a building with an exterior reminiscent of an ornate Eastern European church and an interior reflecting a classic Calvanist tradition. On the outside, the red-brick facade featured an entrance reminiscent of a Greek Temple with a wide staircase leading from the sidewalks and four massive columns supporting a triangular gable. On either side of the building were twin hexagonal towers capped at some point by Byzantine onion domes, each topped with a traditional Orthodox three-bar cross. Stained glass windows adorn the building.

Inside, rich woodwork, clean lines and simple frescoes were the church’s hallmarks.

The church was initially called the First Ruthenian Church. In 1949, that congregation merged with South Side Presbyterian, which today remains one of the most vibrant churches in the neighborhood.

Some historians have written that the building’s onion domes were added in its early history and it was used as a Greek Catholic Church, although none of the experts cite a specific reason for that conclusion.

What is certain is that by the 1950s, members of the South Side Christian Methodist Episcopal Conference owned the building and had renamed it Cleaves Temple CME Church. It would remain an active congregation through the turn of the century until the building was put on the market.

Enter Pohl — owner of Andora restaurant in Ohio Township — who was looking to do a project on the South Side. While much development in the neighborhood is occurring on the far end of Carson Street at the South Side Works, Pohl was drawn to blocks near the 10th Street Bridge, where an eclectic array of businesses are.

While he wasn’t looking for a church in particular, Cleaves Temple caught his eye.

“I was looking for a real estate investment and it happened to be a church. It’s good architecture and it’s inexpensive,” said Pohl, who paid $135,000 for the property, but will invest 10 times as much on the renovations. He also will provide parking at a lot less than a block away.

“I see this as the entrance to the South Side,” Pohl said.

He enlisted the design help of architect Felix G. Fukui of Fukui Architects, who also helped to create Sanctuary.

“Structurally, it’s great,” Fukui said. “The challenge is to marry the new and the old. To tie the rhythm and the form of the church together with the modern design.”

In this case, that means restoring stained glass, bringing the woodwork back to it original luster, using the former balcony space for seating and designing lighting so that it fits with the interior space.

Because the building sits back from the street, Fukui has redesigned the entrance so that a center staircase will lead from street level down to a lower level lounge. Two other staircases will sweep from street level up either side to the portico and the restaurant’s main entrance.

The restaurant, expected to open in early June, will feature intimate booths and table seating surrounding a main bar. The separate spaces are meant to provide patrons privacy while allowing them to be part of the activity. Additional dining space will be in the former balcony.

Jeff and Laura Mae Greene of Greene Glass in Sharon have overseen the restoration of the two dozen stained glass windows.

“I just loved the building from the first time I saw it,” Jeff Greene said. “I just was fascinated with the idea of fixing a building like that up.”

The stained glass was less damaged than it appeared, Greene said.

“In the scale of what we have seen over the years, it was in pretty good shape. To the untrained eye, it can often look pretty bad. It was not in disastrous condition. The painting is beautiful, well done, and the colors are fantastic. The bulk of the effort was just cleaning them.”

Louise Sturgess of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation said that one of the reasons the South Side remains a vibrant neighborhood is because so many of its former churches have found new uses.

Cleaves Temple, while not one of the largest, has always attracted attention because of its charm.

“It’s been scaled to fit right in that block of workers rowhouses,” Burgess said. “It should be grander but humbly fits in there with the streetscape. When you think about the scale of things it takes you by surprise to see this ethnic church.

“I think it’s great that it’s being reused. We’re all for imaginative reuses as long as the historical integrity is retained. It’s wonderful how generally on the South Side, historic churches have been treasured, given a new life and a new use. They create a quality of life that wouldn’t exist without them. They help people feel connected to the story of a neighborhood’s history.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633